For better vaccines, scientists mess with DNA to form ‘origami’

Picture a virus. Are you thinking of the spiky ball shape of COVID or HIV? Or the alien like spines of a bacteriophage?

While virus shapes are incredibly versatile, an international team of researchers decided to get even more creative, using DNA ‘origami’ templates to mould how viruses assemble themselves.

The fun-shaped results will hopefully allow scientists to create better vaccines.

The research has been published in Nature Nanotechnology.

Viruses are simply genetic information carrying boxes. The ‘box’ is called the capsid, and this protects all the important DNA or RNA inside.

Capsids are normally made up of 20 triangular faces (like a 20-sided die), but they can also have less sides, or be ‘helical’ and look more like tubes.

To form these capsids, the DNA or RNA inside the capsid has specific instructions for the machinery inside a living cell on how to make more. When a virus infects a cell, the instructions are pulled out and the cell starts producing new parts.

The capsid coating on structures with different thickness and shape. Credit: Springer Nature

The researchers took this already finetuned process and added an extra bit – origami.

DNA origami is the technique of folding DNA into shapes. The team – some of which are from Griffith University in Queensland – created 3D hoops and tubes of different sizes all made of DNA, which the capsid then grew over.

“This activity is more like wrapping a present – the virus proteins deposit on top of the different shape that is defined by the DNA origami shape,” says Dr Frank Sainsbury, a virologist at Griffith.

“And different virus proteins are like different wrapping paper, which would be relevant to different uses of the coated DNA origami.”

Although this does sound a bit like a viral arts and crafts project, the reason for it is important. The researchers found that the capsid still worked at protecting the inner DNA, meaning that these could be used for genetic vaccines, or delivery systems of certain genetic information.

Basically, the design allowed the team to use the virus ability to sneak into our body for their own ends.

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